The Human Cost of the Rio Olympics
You can’t log on to social media or turn on the TV without hearing about the Rio Olympics. Michael Phelps has continued to strengthen his case for being the greatest olympian ever. Simone Manuel made history by becoming the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual swimming event. Usain Bolt has continued to remind us that he is really, really fast. It’s easy to get carried away with athletes’ storylines and medal counts.
What doesn’t get much screen time is how the Olympics affect the natives of Rio de Janeiro. How did it all come to be? The answers to these questions are deeply concerning.
Rio successfully won a bid for the 2016 summer Olympics back in 2009. Government entities immediately began efforts to demolish entire neighborhoods, and ‘clean’ up the area for the upcoming Olympic Games. Mass evictions started almost immediately after, and continued through 2016. Since 2009, more than 75,000 people have been relocated from their homes as a result of the Olympics and other major sports projects, including the 2014 World Cup. Displacement has been a huge issue.
Most of the residents of these neighborhoods were able to move into government-subsidized developments, while some received compensation and moved to different parts. Some residents actually owned their homes, and had legal land titles from the state granted to them back in 1994. Many of these residents thought that these titles would protect their homes from the exact scenario that is currently taking place. Disputes between home/business owners and the government over just compensation for properties have been common.
\Supporters of the Rio Olympics argue that the long term benefits of hosting the Olympics will outweigh the massive costs associated with building new infrastructure, demolishing entire neighborhoods, and subsidizing new housing for displaced residents. They believe that increased exposure of the city to an international audience will increase business, tourism, trade, etc. and thus boost economic activity in the long run.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, has written that reality is often quite different. In an article from The Atlantic, Zimbalist argues that much of the needed public investment in infrastructure could take place in the absence of the Olympics. In addition, he notes that many of the venues are built, and then rarely used after the games. These venues take up a large amount of space in urban areas, and are costly to maintain.
Zimbalist also believes that there is little evidence to support the supposed boost in business and tourism that the games bring to a city. Most Olympic cities are already well known, and it’s “implausible” that the games could give them a significant boost. In fact, the PR effect can often be negative if problems in the host country are brought to light. He cites Munich, Atlanta, and Beijing as past examples of this.
The Rio Olympics will end soon, but the real measure of its success will not be determined until years later. The natives will be the ones to bear the consequences, for better or for worse.